Sunday, 4 February 2018

Frank Skinner's Catholicism

Frank Skinner is a British comedian and probably my favourite. He is a master of riposte and double entendre, a genuinely well-educated man from a working class background. And he is a Roman Catholic.

He describes himself freely and frequently on his Saturday morning Absolute Radio The Frank Skinner Show as a ‘follower of the Nazerne’ and many stories are based on something that happened at Mass or speaking to the Parish Priest. He conducted and excellent interview with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, available as a transcript or on YouTubeand has even crossed swords with arch-atheist Richard Dawkins as explained in The Daily Telegraph. He is an alcoholic who has been dry for decades and his life in comedy began when he sobered up and decided to give it a try. He is fabulously rich and once lost a fortune in an economic slump - but recovered. He probably first came to the wide public attention through a show with his good friend and one time flatmate David Baddiel but later through the Frank Skinner Show on TV and Room 101 where his witty banter with a wide rage of celebrities - from Noel Gallagher to Cliff Richard - were always good television. 

His stand-up career - which he still pursues - is legendary and I’ve seen him. His routine is good, hilarious in places and he has an excellent rapport with his audience and has a answer for every comment. He is very amusing on his relationships, including with his present partner Kath with whom he has a son Buzz. Their relationship is often stormy - or has been - and the insights into such relationships resonate with any couple. However, the second half of his show deteriorates into what can only be described as filth. He is well known for this aspect of his routine which used to feature from the outset as a cursory YouTube search will reveal.

He has toned things down a lot in recent years but retains a part of his act which, while extremely funny, made my late teenage and early twenties children - no strangers to the live comedy circuit - blush. His Catholicism is always to the fore but I am curious about how he reconciles some aspects of his stand up routine, a divorce and now living out of marriage with a son, with his Catholicism - or who has helped him to achieve this reconciliation. It is perfectly possible to remain a Catholic under most circumstance - including excommunication (which only prevents you from receiving the sacraments) - on the proviso that you do not receive Communion. He does; I have seen it on TV.

I am not judging and would readily concede that he is probably a ‘better Catholic’ than most, including many seemingly pious people who are regularly at Mass. Undoubtedly he is a Better Catholic than me. But, unless I have missed something - and that is quite possible with the present reforming Pope - there has not been some wide-scale relaxation of the ‘rules’ regarding eligibility to take Communion.

He remains my favourite comedian and personality. I am glad that he is not afraid to proclaim is faith and that he is, undoubtedly, on the side of the angels. I do hope that he has properly understood his faith and has not been misled or made the wrong assumptions about what is expected of a Roman Catholic. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Catholics and haiku

Should Christians and, especially, Roman Catholics dabble with things like haiku? What would be the problem? There are certainly ‘Christian’ and ‘Catholic’ haiku - Google them. They are sentimental nonsense and nothing to do with haiku. But this led me as a Roman Catholic to question if the practice of haiku - both reading and writing them - is compatible with my faith.

Haiku has its origins in Japanese Zen Buddhism and it is obvious that the Buddhist influence persists from my extensive reading of haiku. The influence is not only in the haiku but in essays around haiku, book reviews and books where people expound on haiku both generally and specifically. It is abundantly clear that many practitioners of haiku are Buddhist. There is no Roman Catholic line on haiku but there certainly is on Buddhism. While Pope John Paul II wrote very positively about Buddhism in the Opus Die inspired Crossing the threshold of hope, it is clear that it is incompatible with Roman Catholicism if, for no other reason, than it denies the existence of a personal God and strays into some practices and holds some beliefs that many would easily see as not being remotely Christian, such as reincarnation.

On the other hand, to deny, as some would, that there is nothing in common between Catholicism and Buddhism is ridiculous - even in our beliefs. We can look at spiritual practices such as meditation and liturgical devices such as burning incense and church bells and it is hard to deny this superficial influence of Buddhism on Christianity. After all Buddhism preceded Christianity by centuries. But, what about haiku and what are they?

Haiku are, essentially, poems. Traditionally, in Japanese, they had a three line, seventeen syllable structure with a seasonal reference (kigo) and a cutting word (kareji) to indicate a break in the flow of ideas. When haiku were imported to the west the three line seventeen syllable structure was mimicked but has gradually disappeared as it only had meaning when the Japanese language was used. Most poems described as haiku now are, strictly, senryu as mostly they do not contain a seasonal reference and deal with a very wide range of topics. But the essence of haiku is not in its structure or specific features of its content. Haiku are about the celebration of the mundane, in the present moment, the taking notice of small things but represented in such a way that there may be ambiguity in the form of words - openness to interpretation - with no moral message and a minimum of emotion and sentiment. For example, one of my own haiku:

the ploughman
his thoughts mingle
with the gulls 
(Published (2018) in Blithe Spirit (Journal of the British Haiku Society) Volume 28, Number 1, page 19. LHA Ref: Blithe Spirit 28.1, February 2018)

Not too ambitious but a moment captured and an impression conveyed. Perhaps a new way of looking at something that you have often seen. Rarely are haiku explained and expounded on - but occasionally they are. The above haiku was inspired by seeing fields being ploughed, a very common sight from my youth in rural Kincardineshire but still visible from roads as we drive past fields in Spring. The gulls follow the plough where the newly turned earth offers worms and other edible substances that have been buried beyond their reach. I imagined the ploughman thinking and his thoughts rising to join the gulls. Obvious, perhaps, but some haiku are quite obscure.

What would there not be to like about haiku from the Christian perspective? Well, nothing in my view but this celebration of the moment and the mundane is certainly very ‘mindful’ - to use a current term which definitely has Buddhist meditational origins. Such meditation emphasises a focus on small things and not on the eternal and this may seem like dangerous meddling with another form of thought, even a syncretism. Perhaps it is but I see no incompatibility between Christianity - and Catholic Christianity - and celebrating the mundane and elevating it to consciousness. After all, the mundane and the 
                                                 eternal are equally part of God's creation.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The University of Navarra

The Edificio Central
The University of Navarra is a catholic (ie not Catholic) university which was founded by and operates under the prelature of Opus Dei. The founding principles of Opus Dei (´The Work´) set the tone of the university and a great many staff - possibly the majority - belong to The Work. I have never met anyone at the decanal level or above who is not a member. In theory this need not be the case and would certainly conflict with the equal opportunities legislation so prominent in Europe. But, I guess, there are ways and means to ensure that the university remains in the grip of this powerful and very rich international organisation.

The university is located in Pamplona, Navarra in the North of Spain, just below the Basque country. I have been visiting since 1991. Naturally, as a fellow-traveller in the sense that I am a Roman Catholic and a fairly conservative one, I have been curious about Opus Dei. While I have never considered joining I have enquired, met people and attended a few events. I find the writings of the founder - the relatively fast-tracked Saint Josemaria - anodyne and uninspiring. People who have left the work report badly on him - perhaps they are biased - and I hear some unpleasant things about the work, even from people still active in it. I was exposed to their methods on my first visit when, after expressing some negative views about the late, publicity hungry and fairly disastrous Pope Jonh Paul II over lunch - also fast-tracked to sainthood by his own procedure - I was told an English Priest of The Work would like to meet me for coffee. This turned out to be to correct me in my ways and help me to understand the error of them; someone had reported on my conversation. It also concerns me greatly that The Work - uniquely in the Roman Catholic Church - ordains its own priests. Claims of secthood and culthood are always rebuffed but, if it is not already those things, then it soon will be despite its outward tactic of unswerving loyalty to The Pope.

On the other hand, I have been shown nothing but kindness at the University of Navarra and count some of its members - male and female - amongst my best friends. I had no hesitation in appointing a couple I know well as godparents of one of my sons and I have no questions about their faith and good intentions.

I am writing this from Pamplona and what has impressed me most during my week here has been the students. Not necessarily the ones I have met but the ones who make a beeline for the Oratorio on the ground floor of the Science Faculty Building to visit the Blessed Sacrament. Every building has an Oratotio - a chapel - and I make it my own habit to ´visit´on the way to my office. It reminds me I am a Catholic and it is something I cannot do in my own university. But in all my years of coming here and my many visits I do not recall fighting past queues of students to get a glimpse of the tabernacle; most students do not appear to have any allegiance to The Work. Young men and women, ordinary students, who are unafraid to express their faith, groups of friends - a few young men pushing each other about on the way across the campus go to the Oratorio together, all genuflect and then walk on; another breaks from a group of friends to do the same and then runs to re-join the group. I find this remarkable, undemonstratve and sincere. If there is a spirit of Opus Dei then, while I will not be joining to find out more, this is it to me: making faith normal and leading a good life.

St Augustine´s Church,Washington DC

I Googled my nearest Roman Catholic Church from our hotel - the Washington Hilton - and found St Augustine´s. According to the information it was Washington´s first black Roman Catholic Church. I had been to a predominantly black Church once before in Virginia, but this was different; it was described as a black church and I was curious...but also concerned. I associate black churches with a very expressive form of religion; evangelical, pentocostalist and always Protestant. I was curious to see if this Roman Catholic Church had any of these features but I was also concerned as I loathe that kind of religion; not the faith, but anything that purports to get me on my feet, expressing my faith and generally interacting.

Well, it was everying I imagined! The Church was not all black, but predominatly so. I found the white Christian Saints and Martyrs displayed in the copious stained glass windows an amusing contrast. The Church was of a very classic design, nothing modern about it. The cantor was a young white woman, the servers were black and, when he finally arrived, the priest that day was white.

The priest was a larger than life character and equally loud and his opening lines of welcome were punctuated with ´halleluha!´ to which the congregation readily replied in kind. Likewise the sermon - ´halleluha!´ The singing was relatively restrained but I did note a drum kit at the front, presumably for a even livelier Mass later that day. I had gone to the early morning Mass as I had a flight to catch that day.

The Mass had its own unique features. As I could have predicted, hands were raised during the Our Father. This is an abomimable practice in which I had never participated...until this Mass! I had no choice. The people nearest me - one woman in front and another beside me - grabbed my hands and raised them up and I noted that the whole congregation was holding hands as one. At the end of the prayer, the affectionate squeeze on the hand I was given before we all disengaged was a friendly gesture. Of course, when it came to the sign of peace, this lasted a good five minutes or more as everyone in the Church had to shake hands with almost everyone else, including me. I did not take Communion, partly due to time but mainly as I did not want to get tied up in any post-Mass activities. I really like to enter and leave Mass anonymously.

Not my style of worship but I came away with a huge smile on my face. I was struck by the utter sincerity of what I had witnessed and on my next visit to DC, I may go back. Halleluha!

Monday, 5 September 2016

Engaging in the Mass

With lay readers, girls on the altar, the 'sign of peace' and all manner of music and activities at Mass, the Roman Catholic laity must feel more 'engaged'.  I'm sure they do; but why are the churches empty on Sunday mornings?  The continual reduction in the number of Masses available - specifically with fewer Vigil Masses - with the expressed aim of  concentrating those left into fewer Masses has worked to some extent.  But fewer people now attend Mass and if it were not for the Polish community in my own parish, I fear the church may be even emptier.

Of course, the old Mass - the Tridentine Mass - did not engage people as they could not understand what was going on and they were not ostensibly 'involved' in proceedings.  Then why, when I went to Sunday morning Mass recently in a large Roman Catholic Church in London was it packed?  The Mass was in Latin, the Priest faced the altar and only the sermon was in English.  Of course, you'd expect it would have been full of older people and those who wouldn't know any better; it wasn't.  There were smart young professional couples, many teenagers and other children and, of course, older people like me.

I had not attended a Tridentine Mass for decades; I was brought into the Catholic Church long after the desecrations of the Second Vatican Council, and Pope John Paul II's restrictions on issuing the celebre - which allowed very few priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass - all but saw it eradicated from the Catholic landscape.  But it survived and John Paul II's less popularity conscious successor, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, relaxed the restrictions on celebrating the Tridentine Mass.  Looking back, what a cruel and appalling act of bullying the restriction was and how we now live in, ironically, more enlightened times.

From the bell preceding the Priest's entry I was as engaged as I had ever been in any Mass in which I had taken part.  Only the occasional 'oremus' (let us pray), as the Priest turned to face us before returning to face the altar, reminded me where we were in the Mass.  If I had had my Tridentine Missal with me I could have followed.  What many 'Tridentine-bashers' don't realise is that these had Latin on one page and English on the opposite page.  All but the illiterate could follow.  My eyes and thoughts hardly wandered during this profound and total act of worship.

Since then I have been back to my parish church.  The Priest is a very fine man and the congregation is devoted and full of people who give much time to the Church and dispense more charity in a morning than I have dispensed in my lifetime.  But Mass is not engaging, it is simply distracting.  The different forms of the Mass each week - often mercifully neglected by the Priest in favour of the shortest version - the standing, the sitting, the kneeling, the standing again...sitting...kneeling; the frequent exchange of personnel - lay and ordained - on the altar - the responses, the singing and the increasingly prolonged shaking of hands, barely allow you time to think why you are there.  I leave Mass wondering what we'll cook for Sunday dinner; I left the Mass in London wondering how to become a better person.

Dedicated to the memory of the late Anthony Fraser, Editor of Apropos magazine.